In a career filled with close calls and missed opportunities, the third time’s the charm for Allie Long. After featuring in the United States youth system during her college years, Long would go four years between her last U-21 call up in 2010 and her first national team cap in 2014. She was capped a few times before the 2015 World Cup and many believed with the expanded roster size that tournament would be her best chance to make the final squad. It didn’t pan out that way and after making her first major tournament at the age of 28, Long admits in a phone interview that she’s “done it backwards.”
Long didn’t take the beaten path to the national team and because of that you could be forgiven for thinking that she’s something of an overnight success story. Though as the saying goes, every overnight success story is 15 years in the making. A series of crucial midfield injuries to Morgan Brian, Megan Rapinoe, and Carli Lloyd as well as the retirement of Lauren Holiday opened up the roster space for Long to get called into camp. But she still had to come in ready to contribute immediately or lose out on the opportunity altogether.
So how does a player floating on the periphery of the system stayed prepared and ultimately make the final 18 for the Rio Olympics? The short answer is hard work and a lot of it.
“I moved to Houston with my fiancé and had no friends, no family. I worked out at this place called Next Level Athletics,” Long said. “I worked on every aspect: speed, agility, quickness, reaction time, strength. Then I was at the field every day with my fiancé, or on my own at a wall, and at night I would play pick up with guys so at least I was playing and having to work on my decision making and every aspect of the game I wanted to get better at I touched.”
The hard work didn’t start this offseason in Houston. Laid out in the humorous “La Blanquita” animated short, Long uses playing against men and those indoor futsal matches as a way to grow as a player. “I’ve been playing in gyms like that for the past three or four years and every year I’m trying to challenge myself,” she said. “I started doing it because I want to do what no one else is doing, what’s going to take me to the next level...one winter I remember I would play nine to 11 games a week and go from gym to gym just trying to do whatever I can, pushing myself.” She laughed when asked about the prize money they must have made playing that many games, admitting she would always have to return to the Portland Thorns for preseason before the playoffs because of the November to March indoor league schedule.
Training hard in the offseason and playing futsal is certainly good preparation but there’s no doubt that the existence of the NWSL has been huge for Long’s rise to the top. “I wouldn’t be where I am without it,” Long said when asked about being the first NWSL success story. “I’ve always said I needed the Thorns more than they’ve needed me.”
Because there is a formal, financial link between the NWSL and USSF there has been debate about the role of the NWSL for national team player development. From year one to year four, the quality of the talent pool across the league is at an all time high. Does that necessarily mean that more players will follow in Long’s footsteps?
She certainly thinks so. “The NWSL is big time and there will be other players that make it through to the national team,” she said, though she acknowledges the financial concerns that force some of these talented players to retire before they make it.
Listening to Long speak about her journey to the Olympic roster, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the work ethic of one of her midfield teammates, Carli Lloyd. She has that perseverance and dedication to a singular goal, even in the face of doubters, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.
Still, hard work can only take a person so far on the journey to an Olympic roster. At the end of the day there are certain things like being called up that are out of any individual player's hands. “I just remember being frustrated,” Long said. “You’re not in control of when you get called in, it’s something where you just have to sit back and control what you can control. What you can’t control, just let it be.”
It’s that attitude combined with her tireless work ethic that finally earned Long her recall to the national team. A few months later after a series of excellent performances, she’s now on her way to the Olympics.
There’s the thrill of making the Olympic roster and the actuality of stepping into a team that won the World Cup last summer and now has the pressure of being heavy Olympic favorites. This United States team is trying to achieve what no World Cup champion has ever done: win the Olympics the year after winning the World Cup. Long hopes to do whatever she can on and off to field to help the team achieve that goal - even choosing gold over silver in her wedding planning just to be safe.
As far as her role on the field, she could play the eight, the six, or even an attacking midfield role. No matter her position on the field she prides herself on keeping possession, building the attack from deep, winning balls, being the pivot, and essentially acting like the quarterback in the United States midfield. Long isn’t a natural defensive midfielder but you wouldn’t know that by watching her play for the Thorns or for the national team. Her experience playing as a number 10 and playing against men is where she honed the skills necessary to play the six or the eight role well.
“Playing in the 10, that pocket, there’s way less time,” Long explained but also noted that training for a month with her fiance’s fourth division club in Spain was a difficult but ultimately rewarding experience. “I would be unsuccessful the first couple practices, I’d be so frustrated because it’s just faster, quicker, you have to decide so much quicker, and I would lose the ball and be so frustrated.”
This experience in Spain and her experience playing the 10 taught Long to take pride in keeping possession of the ball, to see the game quicker, and to always decide what to do with the ball before receiving it. This is evident in the way that she uses her one-two touch passing to dictate tempo and rhythm in the midfield. Look no further than her 21-for-21 passing under pressure against Chicago in week 8 of NWSL play to see tangible proof. That’s the sign of a player that doesn’t wait to get the ball to plot her next move.
How will those skills fit in with the rest of the midfield core going to Rio? Long is optimistic. She believes that the midfield has a good balance and every player brings something different and unique to the table. And as for any concerns about chemistry? “Me and Lindsey [Horan] have been able to work a lot longer together because of the Thorns and we love playing with each other,” she said. “Morgan [Brian] has been coming back from a hamstring injury but she has the same soccer brain as us. Carli’s just coming back from injury. It looks really good.”
On paper this group of midfielders looks to be one of the most technical groups that the United States has ever produced. If they’re able to gel quickly in the tournament and Jill Ellis finds the right mix of chemistry and skill? That’s a midfield to be reckoned with.
The United States kicks off their Olympic tournament on August 3rd against New Zealand. For Long, it’ll be her first potential chance to see the field in a major tournament. Long would be the oldest player making their major tournament debut but in a journey filled with close calls, this finally feels like her time. Whenever she does see the field there’s one thing that’s certain, she’ll be more than ready to take her chance.